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SOUTHERN AMERICAN HOSPITALITY

El Batán in Cuenca, Ecuador
The not-so-mean streets of El Batán, Cuenca

I turned the burner on to start dinner and the pathetic flame dwindled to a nonexistent one. “I think we’re out of gas.” It was past ten. Too late to bother our landlady with it. We would have to wait until tomorrow.

We were still stocked with produce from the last trip to Feria Libre. We could throw together a salad, but the fruit wasn’t the only thing getting ripe. If the propane was out, then we’d lost hot water as well. Cuenca’s consistent, mild climate makes central heating unnecessary, but if it’s a temperature I’d throw on a jacket for, I don’t want to bathe in it.

The dreary weather the last week had inspired us to spend the majority of our days labored over keyboards embracing the stereotype of the disheveled creative. If we weren’t willing to brave the icy trickle dribbling from our poorly-pressurized shower, endearingly unkempt was going to evolve into grimy.

While camping in the Southwest, I had grown tolerant of having to skip a few showers. Given our situation in Cuenca, we decided to practice self-love and wait it out. The next day, a maintenance worker came by to change the propane tank, but by evening the water temperature hadn’t risen. Due to the renovations in progress, we were the only ones occupying the building – two gringos who didn’t understand that if nobody was notified of the diminishing gas level before it got low enough to extinguish the pilot, the building’s massive water tank would take hours to reheat. We were assured our showers would be warm by morning.

They weren’t, and we had run out of time. When your well-meaning, but misinformed loved ones assume living South of the United States denotes living in squalor, you don’t want to legitimize their concerns by looking the part. J had scheduled a video chat with his family to allow us to join in on their Thanksgiving revelry, and we were undeniably sullied. While J took the plunge, I forced myself through a workout, hoping to raise my core temperature enough to make the experience invigorating. J’s muttered expletives, audible from two rooms over, punctuated my playlist. I took my turn, determined not to whine over what was essentially, a minor inconvenience. I rinsed off just as the water began to warm.

Thanksgiving in my parents’ house, as with most things under that roof, is a boisterous affair. My parents are wonderful hosts, and the days and hours leading up to any major meal or event are suffused with a flurry of activity. The mat of dog hair is chiseled from the floor, the mantlepieces dusted and fussed over. The refrigerator swells like a bear preparing for deep sleep, with layers of rich and guilty pleasures. When the magical hour arrives, the frantic pace of preparation gives way to an explosion of laughter, curses, argument and warm embraces. At the center of it all is my father, who will inform kitchen trespassers that he has been working on the feast for anywhere between 6 to 37 hours, depending on his mood.

The kitchen is a no-fly zone, where space to craft a punch or charcuterie spread has to be carefully usurped at the margins of the vast empire. The best time to sneak in is when my father is updating his tabulation of butter used thus far. A true student of the tradition of Julia Child, he delights in giving us a painfully honest breakdown of precisely how the sausage was made, as waistlines strain against belts. The only time I had ever missed my family’s Thanksgiving before was to share a Turducken with a friend who was stranded and alone under house arrest. Now, thousands of miles from Cleveland in Ecuador, the reality of the glamorous traveler’s life came with a complimentary jar of maraschino cherries.

Thanksgiving in a foreign country is just another day, and while our little household doesn’t lack for warmth, the mountains of mashed potatoes and ancient familial gags were nowhere to be found. Different is not, by definition, bad, but it does require some adjustment. Our landlady, aware that in the United States we celebrate the genocide of the natives and theft of their land with excessively large and occasionally deep-fried turkeys, stopped by to visit. She had brought us maraschino cherries, swimming in sugar and Red #5, which was a bizarre but touching gesture. While we had the full might of Feria Libre and a modern supermarket to aid in creating an epic feast, we opted for something a little more simple. We generally eat a mostly vegan diet, and a quiet dinner of decadent au gratin potatoes was more than enough richness for the two of us.

A jar of maraschino cherries
The USDA considers this two servings of fruits and vegetables.

In contrast to our specifically tiny household, when I called the family to see if my father had over-brined the turkey or not I discovered I would be an Uncle yet again. The happy news, as expected, overshadowed my own news that I had just finished a novel the day before. Understandable, but still true to a very tired song. My writing is the closest thing I’ll ever have to an offspring (sorry, Moose), and the closest thing my parents will ever have to a grandchild from me, but there’ll never be a seat at the table for those stacks of words. It’s a big enough table as it is.

Being an atheist, a proponent of human rights, and an all-around feminist killjoy, the holidays I was taught to celebrate as a child are significantly less easy to stomach as an adult. I find it hard to accept the rewrites and blatant lies that make up the euphemized history we have been taught just so I can feel good about belonging to a religion, a nation, or an ethnicity. Blind adoration isn’t love.

That said, I appreciate a day off of work as much as the next person. Thanksgiving has always been a high holiday of sorts in my family. Not that it was ever about the food. I may be a sucker for that 3am sandwich of leftovers, but when nostalgia is factored out I think everyone can agree that turkey is a subpar protein. What made it something to look forward to was trading barbs with all four of my younger sisters. As glasses were refilled the jokes became more cutting, the stories veered more salacious. Inevitably, my dad would learn some secret we had sworn not to divulge, the statute of limitations on any punishment having long run out. As the eldest, I left home when they were still girls. It’s been a pleasure watching them grow into sarcastic women capable of holding their own.

I wasn’t the only one unable to make it this year, but cell service in Cuenca is more reliable than it was in Pittsburgh. The resulting group chat was every bit the tangle of good-natured ribbing and wry retorts I have come to expect. Those youngsters have almost learned how to keep up.

A rainy day view of El Batán, Cuenca, Ecuador
A soggy El Batán from our window

We took the night off from writing. Cocktails featuring the local firewater were made and we relaxed, looking out on Cuenca from our living room’s picture window. The street dogs were having a celebration of their own, and we watched the drama unfold. Houses in Cuenca place trash out for collection on grates positioned halfway up the exterior walls of their estates. A tiny terrier mutt was leading the pack in trying to reach a bag of garbage hanging overhead. Their approach was all wrong, but we gave them points for congeniality. They gave up on the futile enterprise and turned focus to tickling their rambunctious little leader, whom we had nicknamed Riff Raff.

Our landlord came by to deliver a jar of maraschino cherries which I graciously accepted. I decided against adding them to the potato au gratin I had planned. The meal was modest, really just a vehicle for butter. I used almost enough to make J’s father proud.

Thanksgiving in Cuenca
Thanksgiving in any other country is just as delicious

After debating the direction our lives were taking over the past few weeks, Y and I decided our course of action. We elected to try and make a go of it in Ecuador, or at least continue some semblance of the mobile lifestyle we have taken to so well. It means a bit of sacrifice and a slim year or two, but the opportunities afforded and the flexibility we have cannot be beaten. We’ll both get our (Teach English as a Foreign Language) TEFL certificates, and continue to take advantage of opportunity as it comes. Both of us, in our own ways, often let these pass us by. During our cross-country trip, we were forced to allow life to unfold and reveal itself at its own delicate pace. Nothing hurt and everything was beautiful. We don’t have a blueprint etched in stone, and that is precisely how we seek to continue our journey.

While we were navigating daily life, I began preparing to apply to English schools in anticipation of completing my TEFL course. One school needed not one, but two character references, so I reached out to a former boss and a friend and former colleague. I was still rattled from having schoolyard bullies come back to haunt me the previous week, so I was really thrown when my erstwhile friend declined to write in support of my good character. We had worked together, and the friend had left in the months before I was promoted. None of that should have had anything to do with a simple favor, removed as it was from the professional bartending arena.

The refusal was couched in soggy affirmations of friendship with words like love and cherish. As I choose to view the world, if you wouldn’t personally recommend someone’s character, then it’s questionable at best if you truly cherish that person. I try and surround myself with the best people, those who I would do just about anything for, and it was a bitter pill to swallow knowing that someone I trusted lived such a life of compromise. I felt like the revealed gulf in communication or understanding that had suddenly snatched closed between us was the conclusion of years of wasted time. When it rains, it pours.

Resigning myself to the fact that teaching is the best option available to us as we continue to pursue this path does not translate into dragging my feet any less. It’s work I feel dispassionate about, and I doubt my ability to be as engaging as a teacher should be.

I’m also worried about the hours. Classes are assigned by seniority, with new teachers receiving last pick. Even as a child I struggled with keeping regular hours, staying up past 2am even on school nights. If I’m awake in the early morning I’m either still awake or have an appointment with some government agency. In recent years, bouts of insomnia have come on abruptly, rendering me zombielike and adding another layer to my reservation.

J has been aggressive in trying to get me to finish my coursework. For someone who never grew out of their rebelliousness, my knee-jerk reaction is to resist. I have never dropped the ball on any of my responsibilities to him, so his tenacity feels all the more unwarranted. I am only beginning to understand the level of autonomy that is relinquished by allowing another to act in ways that dictate both your futures. Some assurance from me isn’t so much to ask.

While the TEFL curriculum is interesting, it’s still a bit of a grind. Finishing it will be a load off of my mind, though Y seems even less enthusiastic about the digital classroom than I am. We’re both stubborn, and my prodding doesn’t help. However, as grand as our plans are in Ecuador, we can’t make them happen here without Visas, and we can’t make those happen without jobs. Like it or not, the certificates are the quickest route to sustained time in Ecuador. While the lifestyle we’ve fallen into is by nature free-wheeling, the hard work we are both accustomed to hasn’t vanished, it’s just changed. Ignoring one challenge merely sets the stage for new ones. Regardless of where and when these challenges fall, we’ll face them together, dragging feet and all. What we’ve managed to create and do in a few short months energizes us both, and cutting this grand experiment short is the height of folly.

The streets of El Batan in Cuenca, Ecuador
Avenida General Escandón, Cuenca

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